To Be More Than A Tourist Among The Poor
My undergraduate years at Notre Dame were a blessed time, both intellectually and affectively. At ND I was blessed to find mentors and friends both within the university community and within the Congregation of Holy Cross who were committed to living their Christian commitment in a way that brought together social concern with spiritual depth. The circle of companions who introduced me to the Catholic radicalism of Peter Maurin and Dorothy Day also helped to initiate me into the spiritual disciplines of lectio divina and centering prayer, forms of prayer that have shaped my life—and turned it upside down—ever since. Through prayer and service, particularly service to the poor, the marginalized, those outside the comfortable and familiar circle of my narrow acquaintance, love of God slowly became more integrated with love of neighbor.
I also fell in love. Friendship grew into love in a way that was both beautiful and painful, for at the same time that I experienced the joy of such closeness to another I also, and surprisingly, experienced loneliness in a way that I never had before. I sensed that this was the experience that led to Augustine’s insight that our hearts are ever restless until they rest in God. In his Confessions, Augustine reflects on the way in which his own conversion to God came with the conviction that he was called to celibacy. My experience of loneliness within an experience of intimacy worked upon me in a similar way, and helped to deepen the sense that God was calling me to deeper relationship with Himself, and that He was calling me to live that relationship with Him in the celibate state, as a religious and a priest in the Congregation of Holy Cross.
Pursuing the M.Div. at Notre Dame, I continued to feel the stirrings of the desire to move beyond the comfortable and familiar, to encounter Christ in the marginalized, to let my faith be challenged by the poor, to grow in compassion. During my undergraduate years I had been involved in service to the needy of the South Bend area, but this seemed not to be enough. I felt an invitation to be more than a tourist among the poor: I wanted to share in their life. I requested, and was given permission, to spend a year and a half in our mission in East Africa, to do some pastoral work and theological study in Nairobi.
The year and a half that I spent in East Africa was an especially graced time in my formation. As I had never before been outside North America, my experience in Nairobi opened my eyes to realities I had vaguely heard of, but of which I had no real comprehension. At that time our formation house in Nairobi was located in Holy Cross Parish, Dandora, in one of the poorer neighborhoods of the city. Dandora seemed at first sight to be a slum, but it was permanent housing, a step above the mud houses that constituted the real slums of Nairobi. Dandora was home to some one hundred thousand people from all over Kenya, as well as residents and refugees from some neighboring countries as well. The seminaries where we studied were located on the opposite side of the city, a long drive through the wildest traffic I had ever seen. Hekima College, the Jesuit theological college where I and some of my confreres studied, brought together Jesuit and other religious seminarians from all over Africa, as well as a few European and American seminarians with an interest in working in Africa. In such an environment as Nairobi provided, I was able to encounter a much broader world.
My experience in East Africa challenged my ideas (and ideals) about poverty. I was struck by the extensive use of the passive voice in Kiswahili and other East African languages, and was frustrated not infrequently by our neighbors’ apparently passive acceptance of injustice, their sense that not much could be done to change their society, or their lot within it. To my surprise, and to considerable disappointment in myself, I struggled to find compassion in my heart for some of the broken individuals that I met.
In prayer I found that the Scriptures came alive for me in new and startling ways. In particular, the words of the prophets and the stories about the rulers of Israel acquired new depth for me as I found many of the situations they had addressed were played out anew on the stage of post-colonial African societies. In observing that, I became increasingly convinced that the historical-critical approach to the Scriptures I had learned in my coursework wasn’t enough, for historical-critical scholarship tends to locate the meaning of texts in the past, in what happened once, long ago. It seemed to me that the truth of the Scriptures lies not in their preserving a record of what happened once, but in their relating stories of what happens again and again in human experience, in the human encounter with God.
After making perpetual vows and receiving ordination as a deacon in September 1990, I returned to Kenya to assist again in Dandora. I remained there for four years. They were years of political turmoil in Kenya as the country made the transition to multi-party democracy, with the government of President Moi dragging its heels every inch of the way. I discovered a talent and a love for preaching, particularly as I tried to interpret political developments in the country in the light of the Scriptures. It was in service to the Catholic community of Dandora that I realized I was becoming what our Holy Cross constitutions challenge each of us to be: a man “with hope to bring” (Const. 8,118).
In the years since, as I’ve been engaged in studies at the Biblicum in Rome or teaching Scripture in Uganda, the Word of God whom I encounter in the Scriptures has continued to sustain and to challenge me, to turn my life upside down and inside out. In my journey as a religious priest, I’ve realized that my life in its depths, like the ground under my feet, is prone to earthquakes. I’ve come to expect the occasional shaking of the foundations. And I’m grateful, for the tremors are but another way in which God makes himself known to me and leads me to himself.